January 6, 2009 – Retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki pledged to move quickly to fix gaps in health care if confirmed as Veterans Affairs secretary, saying he will reopen benefits to hundreds of thousands of middle-income veterans denied during the Bush administration.
In a 54-page disclosure obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to head the government’s second largest agency also urged Congress to set VA funding a year in advance to minimize political pressures. And the former Army chief of staff said he will step down from the corporate boards of defense contractors to alleviate potential conflicts of interest.
“If confirmed, I would focus on these issues and the development of a credible and adequate 2010 budget request during my first 90 days in office,” Shinseki wrote to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, noting that VA funding in the past created “significant management difficulties” that delayed medical care.
The Senate committee is scheduled to hold Shinseki’s confirmation hearing on Jan. 14.
Shinseki, 66, said he had resigned from the boards of Honeywell International Inc., which holds billions in contracts with the U.S. Army, as well as Ducommun Inc., which services defense contractors such as Boeing Inc. by manufacturing parts for aircraft. Because he will continue to receive undisclosed sums of deferred compensation from those firms, Shinseki said he will also recuse himself from any VA decisions involving those companies.
The former Army chief of staff also said he will stop doing business at his consulting company Pegasus Associates Inc. and will resign positions at Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, First Hawaiian Bank and DC Capital Partners.
Shinseki, who was once vilified by the Bush administration for questioning its Iraq war strategy, said a top goal will be to fulfill Obama’s campaign promise to expand care to veterans who were denied access due to cost-cutting. Such “Priority 8” veterans, whose income exceeded roughly $30,000 annually, were blocked from enrollment in the VA system in January 2003.
During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to restore benefits to the “Priority 8” veterans and to improve overall funding at the VA. The VA was roundly criticized during the Bush administration for underestimating the amount of money needed to treat thousands of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since Obama’s election, the VA has indicated it was taking initial steps to send additional money to VA hospitals and clinics later this month to implement a new enrollment plan possibly by June.
“I believe the prudent approach will be to validate the estimated number of these veterans, giving appropriate consideration to the potential impact of current economic factors, and then assess the capacity of facilities and staffing and then quickly create a plan to phase these veterans into VA for care,” Shinseki wrote.
In his questionnaire, Shinseki also:
_Pledged to cut down six-month waits for disability benefits in part by switching from paper applications to “an integrated, all electronic claims processing system.” Shinseki said his starting point will be achieving VA’s strategic goal of roughly 145 days, a benchmark that has eluded the agency despite years of promises by current VA Secretary James Peake and his predecessor, Jim Nicholson.
_Initiate an “independent, thorough” review to ensure that the VA will not delay rollout of millions of dollars in new GI benefits in August. The VA initially suggested it might not be able to meet the deadline, but after criticism insisted it could handle the needed improvements to its information technology systems. At least 520,000 veterans are expected to take advantage come this fall, up from about 250,000 currently.
_Work more closely with the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor and the Small Business Administration to increase economic opportunities for veterans and reduce homelessness.
Obama last month announced the selection of Shinseki, the native of Hawaii who is the first Army four-star general of Japanese-American ancestry. If confirmed, he will be the first Asian-American to hold the post of Veterans Affairs secretary.